The question: “Is sugar vegan?” is a pretty tough one to answer. Most sugar – of all varieties – is vegan, but sometimes you could argue that it’s not.
The refined sugar – ordinary white table sugar – that is manufactured in the U.S. comes from one of two sources: beets or sugarcane; so roughly half of the white sugar in American is cane sugar, and the other half is beet sugar. Beet sugar and cane sugar go through different refining processes, and that’s where the problem lies.
During the final stage of refining cane sugar, the sugar is filtered through charcoal. That charcoal may come from animals, vegetables or minerals; there’s just no way of telling on the consumer end. Beet sugar, on the other hand, does not go through this process; so it is safe to say beet sugar is definitely vegan; whereas refined cane sugar might not be depending on how strict your definition of vegan is.
About half of the sugar refineries in the U.S. use bone-char, but the other half don’t. There’s a 50/50 chance that the sugar used in the products you purchase is either cane or beet sugar. Then there’s a 50/50 chance that if it is cane sugar, it was filtered through charred animal bones. This means there’s basically a 25% chance that the sugar you’re eating on a regular basis is not vegan in the strictest sense of the word.
Where do the bones come from?
According to the Sugar Association, the only animal bones used to produce bone-char filters are cow bones, and they do not come from the meat industry, but rather cows that have died from “natural causes” and whose bones were first used by the gelatin industry.
What are the nutritional differences between beet and cane sugar?
Nutritionally, beet and cane sugar are comparable. As far as your body is concerned, there is no difference whatsoever. The bone-char is just a filter that is used to bleach the cane sugar; it does not remain in the sugar after this process.
How do I know if I’m eating beet sugar or cane sugar?
Unless the product in question specifically says that it’s made from beet sugar, there’s no way of telling. Manufacturers are not required by law to specify which refinery their sugar comes from and if it’s from beets or sugarcane.
What are the alternatives?
If you’re concerned about this issue, you have plenty of options. When buying sugar to keep in your house, you can buy unbleached (raw) cane sugar; you can make a point of only buying beet sugar; or, you can turn to a totally different source, like pure maple syrup. When buying prepared foods that contain sugar, you’ll have to avoid purchasing anything that does not specifically say it only contains beet sugar, or organic or raw cane sugar.
The Final Verdict
It’s entirely up to you to decide whether or not sugar is vegan. I could argue that sugar is vegan, considering cows are not explicitly killed to make sugar, and you’re not eating cow bones when you eat sugar. In fact, cane sugar is actually considered Kosher because by the time the bones are used to filter sugar, they are pure carbon and in no way, shape, or form are you eating bones.
On the other hand, I could argue that by purchasing refined cane sugar, there is a 50% chance that you are supporting the gelatin industry, and you might have a problem with that. Remember, the Sugar Association says cows are not killed for their bones to produce sugar; instead, they died from “natural causes.” However, according to Wikipedia, “On a commercial scale, gelatin is made from by-products of the meat and leather industry.”
In summary, I would say that from a dietary perspective, all sugar is vegan; from an ethical perspective, some sugar may not be.